Given that a sad anniversary, the 57th, graced us this week, should be no surprise that we’d reflect back to it in some way or another. Singer-songwriter Don McLean did his back in 1971 with the album and title song, American Pie, for the day the music died, which occurred on February 3, 1959. This would be mine, though centered upon one of the iconic trio lost that day in a plane crash. The pioneering artist Ritchie Valens, and the one song that still resonates with me all these many years later.
No disrespect intended toward the great Buddy Holly, nor J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, who died along with him. It’s just that L.A.’s own (care of the San Fernando Valley’s Pacoima neighborhood) Richard Steven Valenzuela still carries weight amongst music lovers back then given a brief glimpse of a promising career cut too short. Especially by those of us in the local Mexican-American community. Even my first-gen (and Rock-adverse) grandparents were well aware of Ritchie, specifically care of his version of “La Bamba.”
U.S. pop songs, let alone hits…even now, whether through radio or sales (back then on vinyl) in languages other than English are as rare as hen’s teeth. In this case, La Bamba, a reworking of a Mexican folk song by the teen Valens, marks it so. Rarer still, come to think of it, since it was the B-side of his second 45 single in ’58. The popularity of Donna, a song of his high school sweetheart, and “La Bamba” on the flip side resulted in over a million platters sold. The former reaching #2 while the latter peaked at #22 on Billboard.
A scarce double-hit record made that much more haunting given Valens’ death shortly thereafter. Arguably, “La Bamba” has gone on to overtake his initial releases to become the song he’s most known for because it is in Spanish. A traditional tune our elders recognized, some of us exposed to its like in childhood. Now infused with the verve of Rock ‘n Roll, then pulling the young by their hearts and hormones past their parent’s music, and into a new era. Having Wrecking Crew members Earl Palmer and Carol Kaye1 backing only helped to distinguish it the more.
Leaving Ritchie Valens quite a legacy, as my mother discerned to her children growing up, as the earliest singer-songwriter for the Chicano Rock Movement, and carried from that point forward by a number of his hermanos the next decade over.
As much as the echo of Ritchie Valen’s “La Bamba” has rung through the decades, owing a lot to the play of DJs on AM and later FM radio stations during the ’60s and ’70s, affixing music fans’ ears, a few of the song’s covers only strengthened the result. 1963’s by Trini Lopez among the first bringing it back onto pop charts. The irony here, Ritchie’s signature tune was itself a cover, of sorts. The ballad dating back to the start of the century in Vera Cruz, Mexico, and marking moments politically as well musically ever since.
“One of the most acclaimed American bands of the 1980s and ’90s, Los Lobos were seasoned musical veterans with nearly 15 years of experience under their belts when they scored their first hit in 1987 with a cover of Richie Valens‘ “La Bamba.” Though their time as pop stars was short, the group — who enjoyed calling themselves “just another band from East L.A.” — won over critics and a legion of loyal fans with their bracing mixture of rock, blues, Tex-Mex, country, R&B, and Mexican folk sounds, with the band’s sound ranging from gentle acoustic ballads to the outer limits of experimental rock. While often cited as one of the great bands of Latino Rock, Los Lobos‘ eclectic sound in fact defined them as a vital example of America’s cultural melting pot.”
One of the great and underappreciated rock groups ever, East L.A.’s Los Lobos did what the now immortal 17-year-old aspired, but never got a chance, to do: perform a chart-topper that’d stand the test of time. The connections obvious, if one cared to look. Local born latino talent from “the southland”, formed fourteen years after Ritchie Valens death. No doubt, influenced by the teen who won, and lost, the fateful coin-flip to be on that small Beechcraft flying out of Mason City, Iowa during a snowstorm.
The group tabbed for the score of the undervalued ’87 biopic of artist’s life, the notably titled La Bamba3, by writer-director Luis Valdez. Not only recreate his songs for the soundtrack (band member David Hildago doubling star Lou Diamond Phillips’ singing voice), but perform a cameo reenacting the original folk song in a Tijuana bar. While the album was a marvelous mix of era classics, with Los Lobos channeling Valens, Marshall Crenshaw, Howard Huntsberry, Brian Setzer, and Bo Diddley, “La Bamba” was still the standout.
The title number gained #1 across Billboard’s Hot 100 and Latin charts, in the UK, Canada, Down Under, and a host of European countries, no doubt finding what the talented Mexican-American Valley kid realized4 years before. Its wonderfully sweet-sounding mix of Spanish, indigenous, and African ingredients the port city of Vera Cruz is known for. Here kicked up a notch by a rock group fully in their element, already acknowledged for instilling all sorts of regional influences into their music.
I daresay anyone listening, who has a pulse, will find it hard to stand still through the tune. The accordion touches and fiery guitar riff by David Hidalgo and Cesar Rojas set it apart from the original…including those closing plucks of the acoustic vihuela. Bringing yet another clear distinction to the piece, but one that melds right back into the song’s longtime Mariachi sway. If you’re like me, and my children know this well of their father, having driven them everywhere with his iPod playing, you’ll want to crank the volume up for this. Believe me.
The lyrics are about a sailor, filled with the optimism of youth, and the exhilaration of expressing it through dance.
Para bailar la bamba Para bailar la bamba Se necesita una poca de gracia Una poca de gracia pa mi pa ti Y, arriba arriba Ay, arriba y arriba, por ti seré Por ti seré Por ti seré Yo no soy marinero Yo no soy marinero, soy capitán Soy capitán Soy capitán Bamba-bamba Bamba-bamba Bamba-bamba Bam Para bailar la bamba Para bailar la bamba Se necesita una poca de gracia Una poca de gracia pa mi pa ti Ay, Arriba, y arriba R-r-r-r-r, ha ha! Para bailar la bamba Para bailar la bamba Se necesita una poca de gracia Una poca de gracia pa mi pa ti Ay, Arriba y arriba Y arriba y arriba, por ti seré Por ti seré Por ti seré Bamba-bamba Bamba-bamba Bamba-bamba Bamba!
- “A young guitarist named Carol Kaye played on this track. She was playing in Jazz clubs in 1957 when she picked up some session work, and she went on to become one of the most prolific studio musicians of the ’60s and ’70, mostly on bass. Working on “La Bamba” was big moment for her. Said Kaye: “What was nice about working for Ritchie Valens was about that time, I was feeling like I didn’t want to do studio work. Because I missed Be-Bop and I knew it was going to be rough to make a living in Jazz. But Ritchie Valens was so nice and so warm, and he made the date so pleasant. I thought if they’re all like this, then studio work I can do.”” ~ Songfacts ↩
- “The Los Lobos version remained No. 1 for three weeks in the summer of 1987. The music video for Los Lobos’ version, directed by Sherman Halsey, won the 1988 MTV Video Music Award for Best Video from a Film.” ~ Wikipedia ↩
- The original movie title being, “Let’s Go”, a take of Valens’ first song, Come On Let’s Go, to come out his initial studio work. ↩
- “Valens’ version of “La Bamba” is ranked number 354 on Rolling Stone magazine′s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It is the only song on the list sung in a language other than English.” ~ Wikipedia ↩